Career Strategies for Librarians
by Karla J. Block

If you’re interested in applying for librarian positions in academic library settings, chances are you’ll
encounter a few search committees along the way.  When it comes to search committees, what you don’
t know can hurt your chances of being selected for an interview or of interviewing successfully.  As you
approach the application process, it’s helpful to know more about how the search committee functions
and what happens behind the scenes.   

From my experience in an academic library setting, the typical situation is as follows.  When a librarian
position is posted, a search committee (usually consisting of about five librarians, though non-librarian
staff also may be included) is formed.  The search committee receives and screens applications, rates
candidates, selects interviewees, participates in the interview day, and provides feedback or
recommendations about the hiring decision.   

It’s also helpful to know more about what will happen if you’re selected to interview for an academic
library position.  The interview day can be rigorous, and typically consists of a variety of formal and
informal activities.  Informal activities often include breakfast with the hiring authority (usually the
program director), lunch with the search committee, a social hour with library staff, and a library tour
provided by a member of the search committee.  Formal activities often include the interview, individual
meetings with the hiring authority and other key staff, and a presentation to library staff.  Additional
hospitality activities (e.g. dinner or a tour of the city) may be planned for out-of-town candidates.

Many helpful articles have been written about cover letters, resumes, and interviewing, but your
interaction with the search committee spans all of these topics and more.  This article won’t take you
step-by-step through writing a cover letter or preparing responses to interview questions.  What it will do
is offer a voice of experience related to search committees for academic library positions.  

I encountered search committees when I began my job search as a new library school graduate.  
Moreover, as a librarian, I’ve served on at least six search committees and have attended numerous
presentations and social hours with candidates.  From this experience, I’ve developed some
suggestions and simple advice for surviving, and even impressing, the academic library search

General Advice
Though it seems obvious, remember that your application materials, interview, presentation, and
personal interactions will be judged as examples of your written, oral, and interpersonal communication
skills.  Correct grammar and spelling are crucial in any written communication.  Spelling mistakes and
typographical errors will be noticed and likely commented upon by the search committee.  Avoid sloppy
errors (e.g. lack of consistency when citing your publications).  Strive for a natural tone.  Avoid being
overly casual or familiar, but at the same time, avoid being overly formal.   

Be respectful and avoid intolerant (e.g. racist or homophobic) or inflammatory comments.  Avoid bad-
mouthing colleagues or your current supervisor.  Be polite in all written communication and personal
interactions with library staff or the search committee.  Avoid degrading any person or group of
employees (e.g. “those lazy civil service workers!”).  When interacting with library staff or the search
committee, don’t be flippant, sarcastic, or overly familiar.  Don’t ridicule the questions that you are asked.

Keep in mind that the search committee will likely have an established protocol for screening and rating
your application.  A rating sheet listing qualifications from the job posting is typically used.  Pay careful
attention to the required and preferred job qualifications listed in the job announcement, because your
application will be rated according to these qualifications.  It’s crucial that you provide enough
information to survive this process.  For example, if the position requires teaching experience and you
fail to mention your teaching experience in either your cover letter or resume, your score will suffer.  The
search committee’s initial task is to screen applications and weed out those who will not be considered
for an interview.  It’s not uncommon for otherwise worthy candidates to be excluded from the interview
pool because they failed to provide enough information regarding the preferred and required
qualifications.  If you don’t provide enough details for the search committee to rate you highly, someone
else will, and those are the candidates who will be selected for interviews.  I’ve often heard search
committee members lament their inability to justify interviewing a particular candidate because the
application material didn’t provide enough detail.  Be concrete in the information you do provide.  Saying
that you have supervisory experience, for example, is not as effective as stating that you managed two
librarians and five paraprofessionals for the past three years.

Smart planning and proper preparation can make it easier for you to present yourself most impressively
to the search committee.   Before you embark on the application process, find out as much as you
possibly can about the library.  Explore the library’s and the institution’s Web sites, locate articles written
by library staff, and find out more about the academic programs supported by the library.  Look through
some of the library’s handouts (many are available online) or read the most recent issues of the library’s
newsletter.  If possible, visit the library for a firsthand view.  If the library has sent you an informational
packet, read it thoroughly.  It’s not uncommon for search committee members to express
disappointment that a candidate seemingly made no effort to find out even basic information about the
library.  On the flip side, search committee members often comment favorably on those candidates who
made an obvious effort to acquaint themselves with the library and its resources and services.

In preparation for the interview and interaction with library staff, think about how you might approach
common questions (e.g. “what interested you about this position?”).  Prepare some questions that you
might ask the search committee (e.g. “what excites you about working here?”), but don’t limit yourself to
questions about salary!  The search committee will notice and remember your thoughtful questions.

Cover Letters
Treat your cover letter with the importance it deserves.  Be sure to follow the general advice about written
communication above.  The best cover letters might be more art than science, but it’s certainly possible
to learn how to write a better cover letter.  Consult some resources about writing cover letters to make
sure you’re writing the best letters you can.  Break up long sentences and consider using bullet points to
break up long paragraphs.  Avoid overuse of exclamation points, jargon, or abbreviations that may be
meaningless to the search committee.  Your cover letter shouldn’t be overly long (e.g. a five page essay)
or overly short (e.g. a three sentence paragraph).  Follow a standard business letter style.   

Address your cover letter to someone specific.  Often, the job posting or informational packet will list a
contact person.  If at all possible, avoid addressing your letter to “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom it May
Concern” or even to no one at all. To close, type and sign your full name.

Most importantly, you should provide an appropriate level of detail.  Follow the general advice listed
above.  Provide concrete details and focus particular attention on the preferred and required
qualifications listed in the job posting.   

If you include an objective statement on your resume, tailor it to each position for which you apply.  It’s
probably best to avoid statements about your hobbies or personal interests.  Most academic institutions
follow strict rules about what they can’t ask (e.g. marital status), so providing that type of personal
information may be seen as inappropriate.

Your resume should be neither too short nor too long.  Again, this is perhaps more art than science, but
there are many sources you can consult to improve your resume-writing skills.  You don’t necessarily
need to keep your resume to one page.  I’d much prefer to evaluate a two-page resume with concrete
details than a sketchy one-page resume that leaves me guessing about important information.  Use
appropriate spacing and margins and follow a standard resume format.  Don’t use excessively large
fonts and wide margins to disguise a weak resume, but at the same time, don’t skimp on spacing and
margins to cram too much information into one page.

Your resume should be well organized and easy to read, and your resume and cover letter should work
in tandem.  For example, if you refer generally to your publications in your cover letter, include details in
your resume.  Don’t pad your resume (it will be noticed and remarked upon by the search committee),
but also don’t leave out relevant information.   

Interview Day
As mentioned above, the interview day can be rigorous and packed with a variety of activities, from the
formal interview session to a social hour with library staff.  A few suggestions will help you get through
the interview day successfully.   

Prepare as thoroughly as possible for the interview.  Anticipate typical interview questions (e.g. “what are
your short- and long-term career plans?”).  You will almost certainly be asked if you have any questions,
so prepare some thoughtful ones ahead of time.  Express clearly and enthusiastically why you are
interested in the position.  Let your personality shine through and present a professional but friendly
demeanor.  Don’t be afraid to pause before answering questions.  Taking a moment to gather your
thoughts will likely be seen as a sign of composure, thoughtfulness, and confidence.   

Learn the name of each member of the search committee (you might consider asking for a business
card from each), and thank each one personally at the conclusion of the interview.   

Typically, the interview day will involve a brief presentation to library staff.  You may be asked to choose
your own topic or the topic may be assigned (e.g. “Reference Services and Resources in a Changing
World” or “Describe your vision for a forward-looking academic library and discuss five elements you
would combine to fulfill that mission”).  The use of PowerPoint or other presentation software is
common.  If you choose to utilize presentation software, practice ahead of time so that you’re
comfortable using it.  Check your presentation for spelling mistakes or typographical errors.  Your
presentation will be viewed as an indication of your comfort with technology, your teaching skills, and
your ability to deal with the unexpected.  Be prepared for technology to fail!  Have your presentation
available in multiple formats (e.g. on disk, e-mailed to an account you can access remotely, copied on
transparencies).  Don’t simply read your presentation, and remember that your presentation will be
judged as an example of your oral communication skills.

Your audience might be large and could include a variety of staff members, from management to front-
line staff and from paraprofessional to librarian.  Typically, the search committee will solicit input from
other staff, so your interactions with all library staff are important.  Most presentation sessions will
include time for questions from library staff, so prepare a few possible questions ahead of time.

After the Interview
Send a thank-you note (e-mail is acceptable) to each member of the search committee, or to the chair
with a mention of each committee member or a request to forward your note to the entire committee.  
This practice seems to have become a lost art.  Though I’ve interviewed many candidates over the past
several years, only a rare few have sent thank-you notes after the interview.  Strive to make a personal
connection through your thank-you note and make it clear that you’re still interested in the job (unless, of
course, you aren’t!).   

Surviving the search committee need not be a mysterious process.  Understanding the role of the
search committee and what happens behind the scenes can help you feel more comfortable with the
application process for academic library positions.  Many of my suggestions may seem obvious, but all
of my examples are from the real world of search committee work!    By following some simple advice
and preparing yourself properly, you’ll avoid common mistakes and survive, or even impress, every
search committee you encounter along the way.

About the Author:

Karla J.  Block, Assistant Librarian, is Head of Access and Outreach Services at the Bio-Medical Library,
University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.  

Article published Nov 2003

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